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The AkzoNobel Challenge – the future is nuts

Could cashew nuts change the future of chemical production? We talked to chemical engineer Vassilis Sfakianakis, Employeneur with TMC Chemical, about TMC’s entry for The AkzoNobel Chemicals Startup Challenge: Imagine Chemistry.

For the second year running, a group of TMC chemists and chemical engineers has come together to compete in The Akzo Nobel Chemical Startup Challenge: Imagine Chemistry.

‘It’s a great opportunity to come up with some innovative ideas for sustainable processes and products,’ says Vassilis. ‘And it’s cool to work on a project with my colleagues in the TMC Chemical Cell, it’s a lot of fun.’

Creating a sustainable future

AkzoNobel created the challenge as a way to select partners to collaborate on pioneering ideas for a more sustainable future. Attracting more than 130 entries, the competition is fierce, but Vassilis is confident that this year the TMC team has generated a truly innovative solution to a big problem in the chemicals industry.

‘We’ve come up with a way to produce surfactants more sustainably,’ Vassilis explains. ‘Surfactants are chemical compounds that are used in a huge range of applications: cleaning, personal care, fuels and lubricants, water treatment, etc. But at the moment, the various components of surfactants are mainly based on sources such as tallow, palm oil or solutions which are typically made from fossil sources.’

Putting waste to good use

The team’s idea was to find a waste product from which you could create surfactants. After a brainstorming pizza session at the TMC Utrecht Office, they came up with cashew nut shells.

‘Cashew nut shells are a common waste product around the world,’ Vassilis says. ‘By applying certain extraction processes to the shells, you can get a liquid called CNSL – Cashew Nut Shell Liquid. About 80% of CNSL is a substance called Cardanol. Our idea is to create a variety of surfactants with different qualities, through simple chemical reactions with Cardanol as a starting point.’

Vassilis says that if the team’s idea is picked up by AkzoNobel for further development, we might one day see these cashew nut shell surfactants appearing in a variety of products, including soaps, paints, detergents, cosmetics, shampoos and conditioners, toothpaste and printer inks.

So what happens next?

At the moment, the TMC team is waiting for feedback from AkzoNobel. A panel of jurors will select a longlist of about 20 ideas over the next few weeks. And then, they’ll choose a handful of projects to go to the final stage, in Gothenburg, Sweden. There, the team will get to work with AkzoNobel to develop the idea further.

‘It would be really cool to be selected,’ Vassilis says. ‘It would be interesting to work with specialists in the field from AkzoNobel, and to come up with an innovative product together. It would mean a lot – we’d gain knowledge, and it would be a lot of fun.’

We wish the team the best of luck: Sam Geschiere, Vassilis Sfakianakis, Maartje Feenstra, Willem van Boekel, Marleen de Kool, and Rohit Kacker.

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